In a dramatic prime-time hearing, a congressional committee on Thursday gave Americans their first glimpse into the findings of a 10-month investigation into the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol that interrupted the transfer of power from then-President Donald Trump to President Joe Biden.
Led by Democratic Chairman Bennie Thompson (Miss.) and Republican Vice Chair Liz Cheney (Wyo.), the hearing was the first of six televised hearings with the House’s nine-member Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol.
“Over multiple months, Donald Trump oversaw and coordinated a sophisticated seven-part plan to overturn the presidential election and prevent the transfer of presidential power,” Cheney said in her opening remarks. “In our hearings, you will see evidence of each element of this plan.”
Thursday’s hearing featured gripping testimony from Caroline Edwards, who is believed to be the first U.S. Capitol Police officer injured in the attack. Edwards described how Proud Boys approached her location at the Capitol perimeter and, in her observations, coordinated a violent assault on her position. The panel also heard from British filmmaker Nick Quested, who was filming the members of the Proud Boys before and during their breaching of the Capitol.
But the star witnesses mostly appeared via video and audio clips from earlier committee interviews. A line of Trumpworld figures — including Ivanka Trump, former attorney general Bill Barr and political adviser Jason Miller — spoke frankly to Trump’s knowledge that he lost in a legitimate election.
Former congressional investigators Anne Tindall, who is now counsel at the nonprofit group Protect Democracy, and Justin Rood, investigations editor at Grid, discussed their reactions to the hearing in a Twitter Spaces conversation on Friday. The conversation, moderated by Grid Investigative Reporter Steve Reilly, has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: I wanted to start with your initial reactions. What did you see last night that was surprising to you?
Anne Tindall: The degree to which the committee’s presentation was focused on former president Trump’s culpability. There was a lot of testimony about what actually happened that day. But from the get-go, the focus for the chair and vice chair seemed to be on accountability at the very top for an assault on the Capitol and also an attempt to overturn the results of the election.
Justin Rood: I think that’s right. I would definitely put on my top list of surprising things some of the comments that we heard out of folks like Jared Kushner, Bill Barr and Ivanka Trump. Those were startling. A lot of the footage that they showed as well — even though a lot of it was what we’d seen before or other angles of the day that we’d seen before — was always striking. But I think Anne’s right: They focused like a laser on Trump and Trump’s culpability. And they — I think very effectively — used the words of some of his closest advisers and family members to tell that story.
G: You both worked on congressional investigations earlier in your careers. Do you have any reflections on the presentation last night, and how the committee put together its set of facts and how it was laid out for the audience?
JR: I had the honor of staffing one of the longest oversight hearings in congressional history; we did an 11-hour hearing on the roots of the financial crisis. Their ability to pack some really explosive and key bits of information into a relatively tightly programmed two hours for a congressional hearing was really impressive. I think they stuck to the format of a congressional hearing. It certainly wasn’t unfamiliar. I wasn’t sure what to expect with all those stories in the lead-up about the role of ABC News executives and planning this presentation, but I thought that they stuck to a good format.
They allowed staff who are often the experts on these subjects, are the ones who dug in the most deeply, to participate both in showing some of the questioning of those interviews and depositions as well as in a recorded video that was shown to encapsulate some of the findings and information they wanted to share. So I thought it was a good mix of some of the best traditions of a congressional hearing with I think some of the more compelling ways to present information.
I also thought the witness selections were very good. And I thought that the questioning was effective, even as it was controlled by the chair and the vice chair.
AT: I agree that it was an effective presentation on the whole and thankfully diverged from the standard back-and-forth, three-minute sound bites from members. I think another thing that occurred to me sort of reflecting on the hearing is what, what a strategic error it was for Kevin McCarthy to pull all of his members from the committee when the potential participants in the conspiracy were blocked by [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi. The fact that we had Republicans who were on board with a full investigation of the facts and a cohesive presentation of what happened really was the linchpin to the effectiveness of that hearing, as opposed to the many we see in Congress and laying out a story.
JR: That was a very high-stakes gamble, I think, McCarthy’s decision to boycott. And it’s certainly what allowed that committee to have such a smooth experience telling the narrative as they laid out their findings. You think back to some of the [Robert] Mueller hearings, you know, you would have the Democrats using their time to try to tell the story. And then you’d have the Republicans spending their time — this is common in so many hearings — trying to either disrupt or poke holes in the narrative as well as going after the credibility of the witnesses.
So the committee avoided all of that. Had they been there, they would have had two choices of a role to play: Either defend on a point-by-point basis some of the activities and the behavior that they were describing in last night’s hearing, or they would have a hand on the knife sticking it into their party’s leader. So, by boycotting and pulling their members from the committee, it also kind of took them out of having to address those facts directly.
If you look at the comments that a lot of Republican lawmakers were making, [New York Rep. Elise] Stefanik, [Texas Sen.] Ted Cruz and others were not engaging with the facts that were coming out or the storyline that the committee was telling. They were much more focused on pivoting to another issue, talking about inflation; Ted Cruz said he’d rather watch paint dry, which is a great line, and I’m sure it gets picked up, but at the end of the day is not a real strong defense of the president’s actions.
AT: I think that’s exactly right. And I think time will tell whether the committee can fully deliver on a compelling story that sort of takes hold and demands a response. But, my fingers are crossed that this sort of duck-and-run strategy ultimately isn’t an effective answer to what we’re seeing laid out by the select committee.
G: A lot of people were struck by the extent to which last night’s hearing kind of felt a little bit like a trial and the way it was laid out and some of the language that was used. Did you expect that, and do you think that was an effective choice?
JR: I think that [the Justice Department] got a lot of love in that hearing. The frequency from which they were drawing directly from indictments was a real nod to the work that the DOJ had done around Jan. 6, and honestly, I found that a little bit surprising given that the committee had done so much investigation — 14,000 hours of security camera footage reviewed, hundreds of thousands of documents. And at the end, when it’s time to lay it all out, more often than not they were turning to the DOJ’s narratives that were laid out in their court filings and their indictments and charging documents. I thought that was really interesting.
G: The committee says its hearings will lay out evidence that “Donald Trump oversaw and coordinated a sophisticated seven-part plan” to overturn the election, in the words of Liz Cheney. We saw a lot of new evidence presented yesterday. Was there anything you didn’t see that surprised you?
JR: Given what they had laid out in terms of the notional plan for these six hearings, all seem laid out very much to tell a story about Trump’s culpability and involvement. But there are other angles that really do need accountability and that the committee was looking into. One off the top of my head is the FBI and intelligence before the attack. It was arguably worse than falling asleep at the switch. They were getting dozens of tips and warnings in advance.
As we saw in the video they had from yesterday, they have interviews with folks out on the Mall. Americans who had shown up for this, not folks who are high-placed police administration sources, were saying, “We know something’s going to happen, can’t tell you about it.” Which implies that there was certainly a lot more planning and coordination and communication around what would happen on Jan. 6 than we’ve been led to understand.
AT: I think the legal case for knowledge and coordination may have been made compellingly last night. Whether the narrative case was made that there’s a connection between Trump and his inner circle and those who came, who were set on violence. … Whether the public will be persuaded that connection is close enough, I think is still an open question.
JR: I’m seeing in some of the reporting coming out of this, the idea that somehow the narrative around Jan. 6 is kind of up in the air in the American mind, we haven’t as a nation really come to terms with what happened or agree or understand. And a lot of the polling I think really cuts against that.
Some of the numbers I was seeing before the hearing was that some 70 percent-plus of Americans overall accept the facts of Jan. 6, and understand, you know, what was going on. Last night, the focus here was really on making sure that folks can see and understand as clearly as possible the evidence that would connect Trump to these actions, both the broader conspiracy of false electors and all these other cockamamie theories, along with the coordinated violence that led to the assault on the Capitol that day.
G: Fox News was not airing last night’s hearing live. Do you think what you saw last night was enough to possibly cut through the divide between the portion of the electorate that is interested in what happened on Jan. 6 and the portion that is less interested?
JR: I think that it was not aimed at the 30 percent of Americans who don’t accept the basic facts of Jan. 6. I think it was aimed at the folks who understand what happened but may be a little bit unclear in their minds, or were simply not following it closely enough, or have just kind of moved on and forgotten about the role that the president himself played.
AT: I think that’s right. I think that there’s a solid chunk of the Fox News viewership that wasn’t reachable and thus wasn’t targeted. And we don’t have much evidence to go on so far. But I did see in the Wall Street Journal this morning that “January 6 hearing” was the third-most Googled term last night and beat out Britney Spears’ wedding, which suggests that there’s at least some popular salience in what the committee put on and an attempt to find it.
G: As former congressional investigators, what goes into witness selection, and what do you think of the job that committee did in terms of selecting witnesses that appeared last night?
AT: Two things come to mind. One, you’re always looking for someone who can tell a compelling story and connect with people, with your audience. And I think the committee achieved that last night with both of its witnesses. Going back to the sort of strategic question that McCarthy confronted and decided to go one way on, one thing these witnesses didn’t have to do was endure withering cross-examination from a hostile set of questioners, and that probably opened the slate of potential witnesses and willing witnesses in a way that allowed the sort of human testimony we heard in particular from the Capitol Police officer last night.
JR: I think Anne and I are in pretty close agreement here. I think with any accountability effort you have a victim and a culprit, speaking in very abstract terms. Your most important witnesses are either someone who can speak as a victim or on behalf of the victims, who can talk about harm; or accountability witnesses, which is to say, the culprits.
When we did bipartisan congressional trainings for both Democratic and Republican staff, one of the things we always emphasized was: Spend most of your time on the problem. Make sure that people understand the gravity of the problem that you’re trying to address here. Make sure that before you shift to the issue of accountability and who’s responsible, you’re really making clear what the costs were that were incurred here.
I think that the police officer was incredibly effective at telling that story. Caroline Edwards had some credibility as a fact witness; she brought information as well. So she was a really wonderful witness. Quested was fine as far as a witness goes. It was a little more of a question in my mind, that pairing, what the intention was for him. Certainly his footage could have been introduced without his testimony.
G: We’re getting some interesting questions on Twitter. One of them is about previous historic hearings, the Watergate hearings and 9/11 Commission: Were they seen as partisan in a similar way by some portion of the population? To what extent is the Jan. 6 committee’s work different?
AT: I think that with respect to Watergate, yes, they were seen as partisan, and the public perception of the Watergate project was much more partisan and divisive in the ’70s than it’s described today. Both Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush were on [President Richard] Nixon’s side. And that’s not how we remember those events now. The 9/11 Commission, I think, was a bit different. And while there was some hostility at the start of the establishment of a bipartisan commission separate from Congress, it certainly did insulate it from some of the criticism that the select committee is experiencing today. And of course, an independent commission was the preference for the speaker from the start, but that did not get through the Senate.
G: What were the moments that stood out to you the most, that you’re maybe still thinking about this morning as you reflect on the hearing last night?
JR: There were a lot of images that certainly stayed with me. Edwards’ comments about slipping on other people’s blood and the hourslong hand-to-hand combat were really graphic and gripping, as well as some of the video that we watched.
But the thing that stayed with me the most, that I really found myself turning over and over my head, was Jared Kushner’s comments about Pat Cipollone, and when the White House counsel’s office apparently collectively threatened to resign many times over. He said that he took that to be “whining.”
It was such a weird comment to make, or feeling to admit to, and I really struggled to understand. What troubled me about it — I think to unwind it — the White House counsel’s office is not an oversight body. They are a facilitator. The White House counsel’s office is there to help the president and his team do essentially whatever it is that they want to do, help create a legal justification. I’m sure White House counsels may say that there’s a finer definition, but in the basics, that’s what it is.
So when you have the whole office saying, “We’re not going to be around for this,” many times over, it tells you that you have a White House just gyrating wildly in unconstitutional areas, to areas so extreme that you have their own lawyers who are trying to quit.
That environment alone just seems completely insane to me, and without precedent in history that I’m aware of. That you have that many lawyers in the White House threatening to quit that many times. And then to perceive all of that — to be at the center of all of that — and to hear those claims and those concerns, and to pass them off as mere whining is so stunning to me. I could not and I still can’t really get over it. Having somebody with that level of disregard for constitutional concerns in such a sensitive position of power was really remarkable to me.
AT: For me, the testimony I keep going back to is Officer Edwards’ testimony about not only her own hand-to-hand combat and injury. But then, when she went to the west front of the Capitol and saw the assault headed her way and the description of this as not a law enforcement, keeping the peace, but really hand-to-hand combat with an assault of force headed to the Capitol. You know, seeing other officers bleeding and vomiting and sliding in her fellow officers’ blood. This is not what we expect our law enforcement officers to do. This is what we train our military to confront. And that was just a really, it was really searing testimony, and I think, you know, hard not to have that stick with you.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.